Blake Snow

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10 reasons we’re wrong about the world (and how to fix them)

The news is wrong.

In terms of health, nutrition, income, vaccinations, education, sanitation, transportation, homes, lifestyles, modern conveniences, violence (i.e. death from wars or terrorism), abuse, and many other parameters, the world is a much better, happier, healthier, and peaceful place than ever before, according to consensus data.

As proof of this, Factfulness by Hans Rosling is the latest in a growing number of fact-based news that show we really do live in the best time ever, and things are getting even better.

Why does the news and human perception bemoan our impressive existence rather then celebrate it? The short answer is fear sells and human are irrational beings. But Rosling adds 10 specific myths that keep us from seeing the truth, along with ways to fix them.

They are as follows: 

  1. The world is not either developed or developing. There’s actually four types of countries: poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, and rich. When looked at it that way, 80% of the world has its basic needs met, and it’s getting better every year. For a better understanding, stop viewing the world as have or have nots. Most of it is in the middle.
  2. The world is not getting worse everyday. Over the last 50 years, extreme poverty and life expectancy have dramatically improved, Rosling shows. “The good old days” never existed and selective reporting of bad news is to blame. The fix: stop watching 24 hour news, look at the numbers, travel more, and don’t be afraid to learn from people that don’t look, think, or talk like you.
  3. Graphs usually don’t work in straight lines. For example, animals and humans grow in their first few years of life, not during their entire life. Likewise, tooth health is better in extremely poor countries (who can’t afford sugar) than lower middle class countries (who can afford sugar but not dentists). Only in upper middle and rich class (that can afford dentists) do we see teeth improve again. The fix: Stop viewing graphs as black and white. They usually chart in unusual ways.
  4. Fear is more irrational in upper middle and rich societies. In poor and lower middle class societies, our evolutionary propensity for fear keeps us alive. For example, a midwife from Tanzania needing a flashlight while walking at night to avoid being bit by deadly snakes. In wealthier societies, however, our propensity for fear often devolves into crippling or life-hindering phobias or invented realities, such as fear of death (in the most peaceful time in history), fear of certain foods, or even monsters under the bed. The fix: serve less fortunate people so as not to focus on your own fears.
  5. Bigger is not usually better. In this chapter, Rosling cites the “Size Instinct,” which causes us to make costly mistakes instead of basic and simple improvements. For example, health investments in poor and lower middle class medicine is better spent on preventative care such as nursing education, basic hygiene, and vaccinations. Policy makers, however, often invest in showy and fancy hospitals that are capable of treating a lot fewer people, despite their impressive or symbolic appearance. The fix: resist the temptation to focus on singular large projects or efforts. Simple, grassroots efforts are almost always better, his research shows.
  6. Lumping people or issues into one broad category hinders our progress. Because generalization. For example, when businesses deem lower middle and upper middle class economies as “poor,” they miss a sizable opportunity to serve, help, and profit from them. The fix: travel to places you don’t understand for a better accuracy rather than making generalizations from afar.
  7. Although slower than we hope, people are capable of change. “That’s just the way the world is,” is a lie, if not temporary coping mechanism. For example, 100 years ago, the now rich country of Sweden was downright poor. 50 years ago, China, India, and South Korea were more poor than Sub-Sahara Africa! No one country is destined for greatness or poverty. For better or worse, societies do, in fact, change over time. For a better observation of this, talk to people who are one or two generations older or younger than you (as opposed to making impossible observations on change with people from your own generation).
  8. Professional expertise, strict political ideologies, and patriotism blind us from a fact-based worldview. Expertise in one field often comes at the cost of extreme ignorance in another, Rosling argues, which prevents us from understanding the actual reality of the world in other ways. Furthermore, talking heads that are often presented as unbiased experts are often well-intentioned activists in disguise. Finally, Rosling blames American patriotism or exceptionalism for our county’s inability to explain spending more than twice as much on equal or even lesser healthcare than the next lowest country. The fix: broaden your worldview to include outside ideas instead of keeping your head down on your own ideas and beliefs.
  9. It’s easier to blame a single person, group, or villain rather than the real complicated reason. The human instinct to blame a single scapegoat and quickly move on prevents us from solving real problems. To fix more problems faster, Rosling suggests to stop looking for villains to blame and instead look for the real causes of failures. To do this, we must seek data in connection with our observations rather than quickly blaming a villain.
  10. Creating a false sense of urgency will only come back to haunt you. Creating a false sense of urgency may motivate people to act in the short term, but in the long term it only damages the credibility of those creating that sense. If you cry wolf too many times, nobody will respond when the wolf really arrives. The severity of global warming, for example, has been overstated and will likely result in further disagreement  if or when the disaster doesn’t happen as soon or as intense as originally stated.

All told, Rosling’s book is wonderful—four stars out of five. To make our world even better, we must abandon our developed versus developing worldview, he argues. Businesses must turn their attention to growth markets such as Africa or Asia (or suffer the profits). And our journalists must develop a less dramatic and more fact-based method of reporting world events. To do this, we must all cover and interpret news events with a much more balanced perspective.